The Dark History of Pennhurst Asylum

Pennhurst Asylum, also known as the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic, was a state-run facility that housed thousands of people with physical and mental disabilities, as well as immigrants, criminals, and orphans, from 1908 to 1987.

It was a place of horror and abuse, where the residents were subjected to neglect, violence, and experimentation.

In this blog post, we will delve into the history and legacy of Pennhurst Asylum, shedding light on its residents’ conditions and the impact it had on mental health care. Join us as we uncover the truth behind this infamous facility and its lasting effects.

The Origins of Pennhurst

Pennhurst Asylum was authorized by the Pennsylvania Legislature in 1903 to respond to the growing social concern about the “feeble-minded” population. According to the eugenics movement that was popular at the time, people with disabilities were seen as unfit for citizenship and a threat to the gene pool.

The Commission for the Care of the Feeble-Minded declared in 1913 that such people should be segregated from society and prevented from reproducing. Pennhurst was designed to be a self-contained community where the residents would work, live, and die under the supervision of the state.

The institution opened its doors on November 23, 1908, with ten buildings on a 112-acre campus. It had a capacity of 2,500 residents but soon became overcrowded as more and more people were admitted.

The criteria for admission were vague and broad, ranging from physical and mental impairments to behavioral problems and social deviance.

Many of the residents were children who were abandoned by their families or transferred from other institutions. Some were immigrants who could not speak English or pass literacy tests. Some were criminals who were deemed insane or incompetent. Some were simply poor or unwanted.

The Conditions at Pennhurst

Pennhurst was supposed to provide education, training, and care for its residents, but in reality, it was a place of neglect, abuse, and exploitation. The staff were poorly trained and underpaid and often resorted to physical and verbal violence to control the residents.

The residents were classified by their level of intelligence and ability and assigned to different wards accordingly. Those deemed “high-grade” or “inmates” were put to work in various industries on campus, such as farming, laundry, sewing, and shoemaking.

Those who were deemed “low-grade” or “patients” were confined to their wards, where they received little or no stimulation or treatment. Many of them were restrained in cribs, cages, or straitjackets for hours or days at a time.

The residents suffered from malnutrition, disease, and injury due to the lack of proper food, hygiene, and medical care. They were also subjected to experimental procedures such as electroshock therapy, lobotomy, sterilization, and dental extraction without anesthesia or consent. Some of them died from these treatments, infections or accidents. Their bodies were buried in unmarked graves on the grounds or donated to medical schools for research.

The Exposure of Pennhurst

The horrors of Pennhurst remained hidden from public view for decades until 1968 when a young reporter named Bill Baldini aired a five-part series on NBC10 called “Suffer the Little Children”.

The series showed shocking footage of the residents living in filth and misery while being abused and neglected by the staff. The series sparked outrage and sympathy among the viewers and prompted investigations by state and federal authorities.

In 1974, a former resident named Terry Lee Halderman filed a class-action lawsuit against Pennhurst, alleging that she and other residents had been subjected to physical, mental, and emotional harm while living there.

The lawsuit led to a landmark court case that ruled that Pennhurst violated the constitutional rights of its residents by denying them adequate habilitation and community integration. The court ordered Penshurst to close down and relocate its residents to less restrictive settings.

The closure process took 13 years, during which many residents faced resistance from their families or communities who did not want them back. Some of them had no place to go and ended up homeless or in prison. Some of them died before they could leave Pennhurst. The last resident left Pennhurst on December 9th, 1987.

The Legacy of Pennhurst

Pennhurst Asylum is now a haunted attraction that offers tours and events for thrill-seekers and paranormal enthusiasts. Some people believe that the spirits of the former residents still haunt the place,
and have reported hearing voices, seeing apparitions, and feeling cold spots.

Pennhurst Asylum is also a historical site that serves as a reminder of the past atrocities committed against people with disabilities. It is a place of advocacy and education that raises awareness about the rights and dignity of people with disabilities. It is a place of memory and mourning that honors the lives and deaths of the former residents.

The dark history of Pennhurst Asylum is a haunting reminder of the mistreatment and abuse that once took place in the field of mental health care. Despite its initial intentions of providing care for those with disabilities, the facility quickly devolved into a place of horror and neglect.

Through the efforts of advocates and families, the truth of Pennhurst Asylum was brought to light, leading to its closure in 1987. This event sparked a significant shift towards community-based care and the closure of many other similar institutions.

Today, the legacy of Pennhurst Asylum serves as a reminder of the importance of compassion and proper care for those with disabilities. Let us not forget the dark history of Pennhurst Asylum and continue to strive for a better future for all individuals.